Solvitur ambulando is a great expression, that in fact has nothing at all to do with the literal meaning of these two Latin words: It is solved by walking. The expression actually refers to how problems can be solved by experiment, by taking actions. That’s where the phrase comes from: Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic supposedly replied to Zeno’s paradox on the unreality of motion by standing up and walking away. Kind of interesting when you think about it isn’t it? I mean a cynic only needs to walk away from the thing she or he is cynical about to solve the problem! I won’t get into trying to explain Zeno’s paradox on the unreality of motion; you should however check it out for yourself. All I will say here is that it is riveting reading that will most likely do your head in as it did mine.
(While you’re at it, have a read of another of his paradoxes. Achilles and the Hare, which is the root of the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. Achilles, a speedy runner for sure, raced a tortoise and (obviously) the tortoise won. Not only that, the paradox states that, given even a small head start, the tortoise will always win, and Achilles (the hare) can never win. Heady stuff.)
In more recent times the phrase has taken on a meaning more directly related to walking; it now really does mean that it (whatever it might be) is solved by walking. Henry David Thoreau mentions the phrase in his transcendent essay Walking. Read that and weep. And rejoice.
Then there was the flawed but brilliant nomad and writer Bruce Chatwin who uses the phrase in his book Songlines. Chatwin believed that, ‘walking constituted the sovereign remedy for every mental travail’. Then there are other writers who have used the phrase in their travel writing, including Paul Theroux who uses it many times in his book Tao of Travel.
All this background is all very fascinating, but it doesn’t answer the question: Does walking really solve it? The first thought that comes to mind is how long is a piece of string; I mean ‘it’ could be anything and of course there are many many things that we know (or perhaps think we know?) can’t be solved, much less by walking. Any of us could think of a multitude of problems, ills, worries, trauma, that walking would not and could not solve. In fact, I hear you saying, walking could actually make things a lot worse.
Ah but wait, isn’t this what the phrase originally meant? If you have a problem, take some action or actions. Obviously not everything can be ‘solved’ to our satisfaction, but maybe some things can. And maybe they can be solved by walking.
No need here to go into the science that’s been done on the benefits of walking; it’s enough to say it’s been found to help in relieving Depression, in losing weight, in aiding in recovery after illness or injury, and in helping one to live longer.
Take me for example. Three months ago, I had open heart surgery which was (still is) a trauma on a number of levels. It was a huge assault on my body and it has played havoc with my state of mind, as well as my emotional well-being (not that they were terrific before, but you know what I mean).
Right away, after the surgery they get you walking; just to the bathroom, or around the ward; anything to get you moving, to get the healing process started. Then after leaving hospital they say, walk as much as you can. Even just a few metres around the house is great. Then gradually increase the distance you walk. It wasn’t that long ago that once around the backyard was more than enough to wipe me out. Now, I seem to be able to walk a kilometre or more without too much trouble.
That’s the physical side of things; what of the mental and emotional stuff? Well first thing to say is that, once I get going, I really enjoy walking; there is a pleasure in it. Tokay I walked about a kilometre down a street I had never walked before. I came home feeling stimulated and ready to get on with my work. A part of which is writing. And, as you read, here I am!
I have been a reader of Bruce Chatwin’s work on nomadism and travel since my twenties. He walked and walked, then he would walk some more. He learned the phrase Solvitur ambulando from legendary travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor who at 18 set out to walk the length of Europe from the Hook of Holland to what was then Constantinople, today’s Istanbul. I suspect he had to walk down a few unknown streets to make it all the way.
The very least we can discover by walking is the answer to the question we started with: Is it really solved by walking?